2008-09-26 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Maybe You've Seen Him Around?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Since late last spring, lean, soft-spoken Breezy Point resident Gerry Sullivan has been walking the neighborhoods of the 23rd AD, knocking on doors, making friends. Sullivan, who works in the financial industry, filed this past July for the State Assembly race in the 23rd AD (covering most of Rockaway, Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and parts of Woodhaven). He's been making a hard run ever since.

Endorsed by all three Republican clubs in the district, including the Rockaway Republicans, and backed by the Queens County GOP, the Queens Conservative Party and the Queens Independence Party, Sullivan's been raising money and showing up at public events as he makes his case for replacing an incumbent who has held her Assembly seat since 1987 when she took over from then boss, former Assemblywoman Gertie Lipschutz, in a special election.

Lipschutz, who had been forced to resign because of a scandal at the time, bequeathed her seat to staffer Audrey Pheffer, who has represented us in Albany ever since.

Local elective offices too often look like lifetime sinecures. The current incumbent has held her position for more than twenty years now, longer than some people hold civil service jobs, and she's never had to punch a time clock or make a payroll. Sullivan, on the other hand, has juggled responsibilities in the real world for years, with wife Christine, as they raised their family (including five-year-old daughter Mary and 17- month-old son Shane).

The Sullivan clan moved to Breezy in 1969 when Gerry's father, Patrick, a New York City cop, decided to relocate from Bayridge. Growing up in Rockaway, Gerry eventually made his career in the financial markets with his older brother, Patrick, who sadly lost his life at the World Trade Center on September 11.

Why did Sullivan decide to run for office now? "This is a year for change," he explains. "How long can we keep sending the same people to Albany to represent us when you've got all these scandals and the state government in disarray." He points out, in his characteristically soft-spoken way, that the current financial crisis is going to make things a lot worse. "For years state spending's been out of control," he says. "State debt formation is too high and spending keeps growing year by year. But revenues aren't growing. The only solution Albany seems to have is to raise our taxes. But raising taxes just takes more money out of people's pockets and depresses the state economy. With things so shaky now we can't afford that."

Sullivan goes on to note that a large portion of city and state revenue comes from the financial industry which has just taken a huge hit. As a trader himself, Sullivan, affectionately called "Sully" by his co-workers on the trading desk, ought to know. But why would he want to give up the excitement and opportunities in the financial world for the dull political scut work of Albany?

"Because we have problems at the local level which never seem to get addressed," he responds, not missing a beat. "What do we do in the event of a natural disaster? There's no full emergency evacuation plan for the communities in our district. In some places, like Rockaway, you'd have major bottlenecks if people all tried to get out at the same time like they had to do recently on the Gulf Coast. With all the homes being built in the middle of the peninsula, we're about to get a huge influx of people, too, and that means lots of new cars. But at the same time they're reducing available roads.

How do they think we're going to be able to function in normal times, let alone during emergencies?"

Another problem Sully cites is the schools. "People need to have a choice," he says, "and we need to make existing schools better." He supports school vouchers to enable parents to enroll their kids in schools of their choice and wants to see development of a top tier high school on the Rockaway peninsula along the lines of Stuyvesant High or the Bronx High School of Science. "We could use the old courthouse near the foot of the Cross Bay Bridge for that," he says. "Certainly something useful needs to be done with that building which has been boarded up for years."

He's concerned about the high costs of energy, too. "We need to reduce energy consumption taxes," he says. "That will give our communities some relief as we work the energy problem out on a national level." Where does he stand on the national election, then? "I'm for McCain and Palin," Sully says proudly. "They've got the right approach to solving the crises that confront us. On taxation, McCain's called for keeping individual taxes flat and reducing the tax burden on businesses. Lots of people don't see the point of this but it's really the key to economic recovery. Businesses drive economic activity by hiring people and paying wages. You can't have a vital economy if you're not productive.

Look at what's happened to upstate New York where the high state tax burden's weighed down economic activity for years while most of the rest of the country's been doing well. Now, of course, with financial markets in turmoil due to a collapsed real estate bubble, excessive risky lending and fancy derivatives nobody can figure out, tough times have hit us downstate as well."

How do you address that? Sullivan says business as usual won't cut it. "The old policies of tax and spend, and then tax some more, aren't going to work this time. That's just going to add to the burden on the average family. Albany legislators have to get with the program and find ways to cut spending because revenues are going to be sharply reduced for the near term. You can't solve this by borrowing more, either, because eventually that's all got to be paid back. Bad debt is what caused this mess so you don't want to add to it."

Between the high profile of national elections and the high visibility of municipal elections, we often forget about the state's role and why it's important to send good people up to Albany. City Hall is so much closer to home while Washington is more newsworthy, dealing with rogue regimes, nuclear intransigence and threats from would-be dictators like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. It's easy to forget we have a government in Albany, too, and that what they do up there counts.

Can we afford to keep sending the same person, year in and year out, to Albany when her voting record shows she's gone along with her leadership 99 percent of the time, never challenging their big spending decisions? Given how wasteful our spendthrift legislature in Albany has been, we can't afford that kind of "leadership" any longer. Gerry Sullivan, with his message of change and his background in the financial industry, promises to bring a different style and attitude to the legislature. On the other hand, a twenty-plus year incumbent whose main claim to fame is loyalty to a political machine that's done its utmost to spend us into oblivion hasn't earned the right to another two years. If people really want change, they need to vote for it at the state level, too.


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